A Love Affair with the Word

My son, Harrison, is quite the comedy-crafter.

Notice I didn’t say “comedian.” He’s not one for being on a stage and telling the jokes—at least, not yet. At this point in his life, he’s more for thinking through what he sees, stealing away the essentials, and coming up with a few lines here and there that would make for a pretty interesting routine once collected.

He’s pun-crafting royalty, too, so watch out. Anything you say might come back to you giftwrapped in genuine “dad” humor. Personally, this characteristic, alongside the fact that he’s a Christian, more than certifies him for being a great and future candidate for marriage to a young woman desiring a family.

Also, he bears a stranger curvature to his comedy. He’ll tell jokes—original and learned—that are often outside the boundaries of comedy expectations. They might not even make much sense, but the way he delivers them is often what makes them so funny. For example, not all that long ago at dinner, Harrison told the following joke to the family, and his mother has officially declared it as one of her favorites. But again, I’m guessing that much of her favor rests in the way he tells it, because in the end, the joke is rather ridiculous.

Here’s the joke…

What do bicycles and ducks have in common? They both have handlebars. Except for the duck.

Now, I don’t know if this joke is a Harrison original or if he heard it from someone else, but just the way he said it had the whole family laughing. It’s a ridiculous joke, but Harry told it with perfect timing and in a way that shows he loves telling it. Now we love it, too.

I don’t want to get too cerebral here, but as I watched Harry perform, it reminded me of something.

When it comes to my job as a preacher, many years ago I took a lesson from Richard B. Hays, a Professor of New Testament at Duke. He shared a personal story that, for me, was secretly influential. He wrote:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare. Kernan’s work predated the academy’s current infatuation with ideological criticism. Even though it was the late 1960s and we were living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw? He loved the texts.”

Hays went on to say:

“(Kernan’s) teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings… delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex themes – moral, philosophical, and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before.’ And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death, and hope.”

Hays makes the point that, yes, Kernan was considered an expert on Shakespeare. But he also points to the fact that being an expert didn’t make Kernan a fruitful teacher. It was Kernan’s loving devotion to the texts of Shakespeare that helped in this regard. When he wasn’t teaching Shakespeare, he was reading Shakespeare and enjoying it for himself, and this shaped his telling of the story when he was among others. Yes, a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare was important when it came to being trusted as an expert, but it was the love of the material—and the display of such love to others—that made all the difference. Kernan’s students could tell his expertise was far deeper than a PhD. They could see his knowledge and love were inseparable, and with that, his disposition was contagious.

I think this meets with us as Christians.

As it meets with my role as a Christian preacher, I recognize that when it comes to the Word of God, when I step into the pulpit, the assumption by the listener is that I’m the “expert.” Of course I should anticipate this assumption without needing to read Hays’ words. But because of his words, I have a different awareness. I’m mindful of the variance between the rigidity of preaching a “Law-Gospel, non-heretical, all-the-right-Lutheran-keywords” sermon and a sermon born from a Word of God with which I’ve had a genuine love affair during the time spent preparing for the preaching task. In other words, the sermon-writing process has become not only one of study, but of finding the angles in the writing process for communicating just how much I love the source material I’m preparing to share with the listener. Excitement for the task builds, and from it comes a genuine desire on my part for the person in the pews to know that the guy in the pulpit loves to tell you what he’s telling you, and he wants you to love it as much as he does.

I suppose I should add that sermons birthed in this way do, in fact, produce “Law-Gospel, non-heretical, all-the-right-Lutheran-keywords” results.

As all of this meets with the listener in the pews, you can beam your relationship to the Word of God with the same care. First, know that I’m not saying you need to go out into the world and be a zealous, in-your-face pest about your love for the Word of God. For most regular human beings with whom you’ll come into contact, that can and probably will backfire on you. In other words, I like cats. But there is the stereotypical cat-lover who wears nothing but cat sweatshirts, drinks from cat coffee mugs, has cat posters in his or her cubicle, names their cactus “cat,” snacks on Purina Cat Chow during office breaks, and has a license plate that says “CATLOVR.” Those folks have a way of making me somewhat annoyed with the topic of cats, and I may even discover myself whispering the words from Shakespeare which say, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”

I suppose what I’m saying is far simpler. I’m thinking that as you go about your day filled with opportunities for displaying Biblical stances in relation to various topics and situations, there will be people crossing your path who can tell the difference between a Christian who knows the Word and a Christian who is in a deep love with the Word—between someone who can recite that the Word of God is the divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable truth and someone who would lay down his or her life before allowing such truth to be snatched away because those same truths are intricately woven into the fabric of their very being.

I’ll add in conclusion, my theory is that this distinction between Christians is going to become more and more vivid in America as time goes on. Persecution is increasing, and as it does, it has a way of revealing such things.